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L.56 A Work (A Wall Painting?) Left Unfinished

1537-1540

Notre Dame, Paris.

On the cartoon or drawing by Rosso for this work, see L.55.  There it is conjectured that the “ymaginis” mentioned as begun by Rosso on the vaults of Notre Dame was a wall painting probably representing Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl.  What is not wholly clear is whether the reference to the work having been begun refers to the actual painting of it or only to the project for which Rosso had made a cartoon or drawing that was to be given to another Italian painter in 1544 so that, it would seem, he could finish it.  But it is likely that the painting itself was started by Rosso.

Unfortunately the document of 1544 does not name the Italian painter who was recommended by Cardinal François de Tournon to finish the work, or perhaps even begin the actual painting itself.  If the painting was a fresco it is possible that Rosso would not have executed it himself, or entirely himself, as he was not fond of working in fresco, as Vasari tells us with reference to the S. Maria delle Lagrime project in Arezzo (see D.31-D.34).  The Italian artist could have been one of Rosso’s former Italian assistants and perhaps a painter who had already worked on this painting.  It must, however, be recalled that Rosso was given permission by the chapter on 7 February 1538 (DOC.35) to wear lay clothes while painting in Notre Dame, which could be related to this project and indicate that Rosso was himself working on the wall painting.  Given that this project may have been begun late in 1537 or early in 1538, the painting itself may have been to a large extent executed by the time Rosso died.  This might be indicated by the fact that its completion was still a concern three and a half years after his death.  If he had not begun its execution or had only just started it, the project could have been entirely abandoned or assigned newly to another artist.  This might have been the case and the unnamed Italian artist may have wanted Rosso’s cartoon or drawing merely as an aid to the designing of his own picture.  But I am inclined to think that the circumstances implied by the document of 1544, which involved the Cardinal of Tournon, possibly acting for the king, revolved around the execution of Rosso’s image.  The delay may have been caused by the settling of Rosso’s estate, in which sums related to its execution may have been tied up, or by the wish first to complete the choir screen designed by Rosso that was also left incomplete when he died and that was first finished in the autumn of 1543 (see L.53).  There is no evidence that the wall painting was finished.

The vaults on which this picture would have been painted were in the area of the “altaris ardentium,” which was behind the main altar and in front of the area between the two central piers that enclosed the sanctuary (see L.54; No. 2 on plan: Fig.Notre Dame, Paris, Plan).  It is likely that the wall painting was related to the meaning of that altar and hence was above it.  “Voltas” in the documents could refer to any of the three levels of arches and vaults above this altar.  The large wall areas above the large arches of the ground and gallery levels could have received a painting.  There is also a small wall area above and between the smaller arches of the gallery.  Furthermore, at the very top of the church, there is the triangular vault.  In any of these places the painting would have been visible from the choir of the canons, which makes one wonder if the painting was commissioned in relation to the choir screen that Rosso designed to cross the east end of this choir and that was commissioned by the chapter on 27 October 1537 (L.53).

The painting itself could have been begun shortly after the cartoon was made late in 1537 or early in 1538.  Rosso may have been executing the painting already in February (see above).  His work at Fontainebleau that kept him away from Paris for long periods of time may have delayed progress on the painting and may account for it still not being finished when he died in November of 1540.

On the nature of the composition of Rosso’s Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, see L.58.